Pagasa: victim of its own study

pagasaIf there was anything paradoxical about super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan that devastated a good portion of Central Philippines, it is that PAGASA (meaning hope in Filipino), an acronym for Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, and an institution dedicated to provide weather updates so as to protect lives and property during any emergency of weather change, has also been victim of their own study.

It has been reported that in 2007, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP)-sponsored study named “Storm Surge Hazard Mapping of Leyte,” was conducted by scientists from Pagasa, namely, Wilfredo Tuazon of the Instruments Development and Research Unit, Nestor Nimes of the Geophysics and Air-Sea Interaction Research Unit and Julie Nimes of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Unit.

The study was part of a larger UNDP project called “Hazard Mapping and Assessment for Effective Community-Based Disaster Risk Management,” or the Ready Project, which covers 18 provinces vulnerable to natural hazards, including storm surges, earthquakes and landslides.

According to the study, the storm surge is the least known of the natural calamities regularly afflicting the country, but in many instances “is the most destructive and accounts for a significant fraction of the total damage.”

The authors define a “storm surge” as the abnormal and temporary rise in sea level at the coast produced by an intense tropical cyclone.”

“Like the tidal wave and tsunami, it is also a wave, but each is generated by different natural causes. While tsunami is associated with earthquakes and a tidal wave is the result of the gravitational attraction of the sun and the moon on the earth, a storm surge is generated by an intense tropical cyclone,” it said.

Strong winds and the lowering of atmospheric pressure associated with an intense tropical cyclone act as the main forces that produce storm surges, the study said.

The study, which was disseminated to village leaders and school teachers in Leyte that year, raised the possibility of three- to six-meter storm surges inundating coastal villages of Leyte, based on models of two notable typhoons as their reference for their investigation: Typhoon “Undang” in November 1984 and Typhoon “Ruping” in November 1990.

What a difference six years has made, when the study became a reality, as the much feared typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan blew its killer winds from the eastern side of Leyte going westward, raising the water levels of the same coastal towns in the study to seven meters, about the height of a two-story building and the study became just a study, while a tsunami-like devastation obliterated almost all of Tacloban City.

What made the tragic event all the more ironic is that Pagasa’s weather station in Tacloban’s airport terminal was destroyed by the storm surge, killing also a lady staff.

The moral lesson to be learned here, especially for Pagasa, is that if there is a scientific study made strongly supporting that a calamity is probable to happen given all the criteria for it occurring, then by all means don’t take it for granted and be complacent about it.

It has a purpose – to save lives and prevent humanitarian crisis to ensue, especially in a poor country like ours.

Announce it and strictly advise the local government units to move with urgency. Be determined and forceful that warnings are heeded. It is your responsibility to make sure that Pagasa acts and is heard.

That is the only way we could mitigate death tolls from monstrous calamities.

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